Parental Alienation Syndrome: The Hoax that Hurts Children

Barry Goldstein, NOMAS Task Group on Child Custody

Richard Gardner did not rely on any research to concoct his theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome.  Instead it came from his personal experiences, beliefs and biases.  His outrageous bias is demonstrated by many public statements to the effect that sex between adults and children can be acceptable.[1]  Here are two examples, but there are more in a chapter written by Dr. Paul J. Fink, past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Pedophilia “is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people.”[2]

“The (sexually abused) child might be told about other societies in which such behavior was and is considered normal… In such discussions the child has to be helped to appreciate that we have in our society an exaggeratedly punitive and moralistic attitude about adult-child sexual encounters.”[3]

Richard Gardner was an active and effective promoter of PAS and used it to create a cottage industry of lawyers and mental health professionals who have enjoyed large incomes by supporting practices that help abusive fathers.  Most child custody cases are settled more or less amicably.  The problem is with the 3.8% of cases that require a trial and often much more.[4]  Although many court professionals have been misled to treat these as “high conflict” cases by which they mean both parents are acting out in ways that hurt the children, the research demonstrates a large majority of these cases are really domestic violence.[5]  The most dangerous abusers, ones who believe their partners have no right to leave are using a variety of tactics to manipulate the courts to regain control over their victims.  Most of these abusers have not committed the most severe physical abuse which is what most court professionals are looking for and so they fail to recognize the danger or the motives.

Domestic violence involve a variety of tactics abusers use to control and coerce their victims.  Economic abuse is a common tactic so the abusers usually control most of the family resources.  This means the best way for court professionals to earn a large income is to support practices that favor abusive fathers.

I do not believe PAS would have been so successful in spreading its poison into family courts if the judges had been aware of its origins.  The problem is that most of the attorneys for protective mothers, especially when PAS first appeared were unaware of its history or its enormous flaws.  In many cases they raised little or no objections to the bogus theory that never had the scientific support required to justify courts to consider it.

PAS Is Deeply Flawed

In addition to the lack of any scientific basis to justify PAS, it is an illogical theory that is based on circular reasoning.  PAS assumes that if a child does not like the father[6], is afraid of him and does not wish to spend time with the father the only possible explanation is that the mother is alienating the child.

There are many other possible causes that are far more likely than alienation, but PAS is designed to deny any other possible explanation and is often used to prevent a full investigation of other possibilities particularly domestic violence or child abuse.  Among the more common alternative explanations for the father’s bad relationship are normal adolescent rebellion; the father was rarely involved with the children during the relationship; the father is boring; domestic violence, child abuse and other behaviors that scare the child.

PAS is based on the assumption that children need both parents equally and that any alienation should be treated as the most important if not the only issue the court should be concerned with.  In reality, children do not need both parents equally even though it sounds fair on the surface.  They need their primary attachment figure more than the other parent and the safe parent more than the abusive one.

Even in intact families, children will usually hear parents criticize each other.  While I would not encourage this, the experience does not prevent children from having a full and happy life.  A rift between children and a parent is likely to last only a short time and have limited effects.  Gardner never provided any scientific basis to treat this as the most important issue.  One of the problems, however is many of the faulty assumptions are hidden from the court.

Later Research Confirmed PAS is Invalid

One of the main causes when courts fail to protect children is the myth that mothers and children frequently make false reports of abuse.  As with any myth, it would not survive if there were not some cases where the mother or child has deliberately lied in accusing the father of domestic violence or direct child abuse.  There are many common factors that lead courts acting in good faith to disbelieve true reports of abuse.  This would include the lack of available evidence; professionals who do not know what to look for; gender bias; the assumption that a father who is successful in other parts of their lives would not be abusive, the difficulty in proving sexual abuse and the skills abusers have to manipulate people.  The problem is compounded by the reliance on professionals that are part of the cottage industry that deliberately spread misinformation to help their abusive clients.

Ironically, abusers claim the reports are made to gain an advantage in litigation, but the reports actually make it harder for mothers to be successful.  It is painful and embarrassing for mothers and children to speak about the fathers’ abuse and guarantees they will be viciously attacked.  It is far more likely that victims will deny or minimize abuse issues and many attorneys pressure clients not to report domestic violence and especially child sexual abuse.

PAS is based on the biased belief that virtually all reports mothers or children make about abuse are false.  To the extent that there is anything to support this claim it is that proponents of PAS automatically disbelieve virtually every report and use their own biased results to support PAS.  In reality, in the context of contested custody cases, less than two percent of reports by mothers against fathers are deliberately false.[7]  This fact alone should fully discredit PAS.

The same study found that fathers are 16 times more likely than mothers to make deliberate false reports.[8]  At first glance this seems hard to believe as women are not 16 times more honest than men, but this is not what the study says.  The study is limited to contested custody cases which are overwhelmingly domestic violence cases with the worst abusers.  They believe that she had no right to leave so they are entitled to use any tactic necessary to reassert the control they believe they are entitled to.

The Saunders’ Study is highly credible research that comes from the National Institute of Justice in the U.S. Justice Department.  The purpose was to look at the knowledge and training about domestic violence of evaluators, judges and lawyers.  The findings help explain why the courts so often fail to protect children in domestic violence cases.  The Study found that these professionals need more than generalized domestic violence training which can mean different things to different people.  They need specific knowledge that includes screening for domestic violence, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of domestic violence on children.  Significantly, professionals without the needed expertise tend to believe the myth that mothers frequently make false reports and focus on unscientific alienation theories.  These mistaken assumptions lead to decisions that place children in jeopardy.[9]

This research demonstrates that the assumptions used to concoct PAS were mistaken and in fact are the opposite of reality.  The beliefs of Gardner and the cottage industry promoting his work are based on their fundamental ignorance of how domestic violence works.  So when an evaluator or other professional is claiming PAS by whatever name they use for it, they are telling the court more about their own lack of expertise than about the circumstances in the family.

PAS recommends an extreme remedy in which the children are forced to live with the alleged abuser and denied a normal relationship with their mother who is usually their primary attachment figure.  The Saunders’ Study included a section about exactly these decisions which he called “harmful outcome” cases.  These decisions are always wrong because the harm of separating children from their primary attachment figure, a harm that includes increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older[10] is greater than any benefit the court thought it was providing.  The Saunders’ Study found that these decisions are usually based on very flawed practices so often the opposite result would often have benefited the children.[11]  So PAS recommends the court impose a drastic solution that is always against the children’s best interests.

All legitimate organizations of professionals in the field have condemned the use of PAS.  Abuser rights groups and professionals from the cottage industry that work with them mounted an aggressive campaign to include PAS in the DSM-V which is the compendium of all valid mental health diagnoses.  The American Psychiatric Association rejected their demands because there is no scientific basis to support PAS.

Even before this latest rejection of attempts to legitimize PAS, psychologists have started to be disciplined for relying on a diagnosis that does not exist.

“If the report of the child custody evaluator indicates that it is based even in part on a PAS theory, the protective parent should ask the court to reject the report in its entirety on the ground that PAS is not a recognized mental health diagnosis and that the court should either appoint another child custody evaluator or proceed without one.  It has become public record that at least three psychologists have been disciplined by their licensing boards for giving testimony in custody cases regarding PAS.  If licensing boards of mental health professionals would take the step of disciplining a licensee for using PAS in an evaluation, then PAS obviously cannot be said to be accepted in the psychological profession and thus should not be admissible into evidence.”[12]

Use of PAS by Other Names

As people have learned that PAS is a bogus theory that has caused enormous harm to children it has become ever more discredited.  Supporters have responded by using a different name or term such as alienation or parental alienation.  Very often when courts are asked to ignore alienation claims, the judge or other professional will point out that clearly there is such a thing as alienation and we know from personal experience that parents sometimes make negative remarks about the other parent.

While this is true, such statements do not cause the kind of harm that is assumed when courts believe a mother is alienating the children.  In most cases the father has no personal knowledge as he no longer lives with the mother and so just assumes she is alienating the children or claims it is based on hearsay statements by the children.  If someone wants to assume PAS based on the poor relationship with the children, that is PAS.  If they want to create a harmful outcome case, that is PAS.  If there is no substantial evidence demonstrating what the harm is, that is PAS.

As I mentioned earlier, contested custody are overwhelmingly domestic violence cases.  Alienation theories are typically used to counter reports of domestic violence or child abuse.  Court professionals often feel compelled to treat each issue equally in order to be fair to both parties, but abuse issues are far more consequential to the children.  Domestic violence and child abuse are considered adverse childhood experiences (ACE) by important medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Children exposed to one or more ACEs will live shorter lives and suffer more illness and injuries throughout their lives.[13]  Alienation, even if true does not rise to the level of a health or safety risk unless it results in completely severing the relationship.  And most claims of alienation in the context of domestic violence cases are false.  They are given more credence because professionals without the expertise the Saunders’ Study finds necessary frequently disbelieve true reports of abuse.  And courts often take the failure to find abuse as if it means the mothers made deliberately false reports.

The excessive focus on alienation theories and related friendly parent approaches have been a disaster for children.  The purpose of abusers seeking custody is to regain control over their victims.  The victim wants to limit contact with their abusers because they experience the abusers as scary and harmful.  They left their abusers in order to promote safety for themselves and their children.  Abusers are great at manipulation and claim to want to share parenting with the mothers.  The mothers’ normal reaction to his abuse and efforts to limit contact with their abusers is often treated as alienation and lack of cooperation.

In many of these cases, the fathers are given custody based on the belief that they are more likely to cooperate with the mother.  Once they gain the control that custody provides, they use the power to interfere with the mothers’ relationship and encourage the children to become hostile to their mothers.  The children quickly learn that they are rewarded for expressing negative attitudes towards their mothers or treating her poorly and punished if they express love towards their mothers.  This is exactly what we would expect abusers to do so this behavior proves the original assumptions were wrong, but courts that would severely punish mothers under similar circumstances generally allow abusers to get away with worse behavior.[14]

The Enormous Harm of Using Unscientific Alienation Theories

Most cases involving allegations of alienation also involve potential domestic violence and/or child abuse.  If the mother is making negative and false statements about the father and the court fails to prevent this, the consequences to the children are likely to be minor, but if a court disbelieves true reports of abuse, particularly committed by the most dangerous abusers seen in contested custody cases, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic.  The problem is compounded because most courts continue to use outdated practices that do not include integration of important new research like ACE and Saunders or a multi-disciplinary approach that includes genuine domestic violence experts in cases involving intimate partner abuse.  Many courts only consider physical abuse even though the ACE Research demonstrates it is the fear that leads to the worst kind of stress that causes the most harm to children.

The widespread use of outdated practices routinely results in decisions that deny or minimize true reports of domestic violence and child abuse.  The ACE Study demonstrates that domestic violence is far more harmful to children than previously understood.  PAS, regardless of what name is used is based on the false assumption that virtually all reports of abuse are false and encourage inadequately trained professionals to make decisions that endanger children.

The present level of what we now call child abuse and domestic violence is based on thousands of years of tolerance for these abusive tactics.  Although the laws have changed, the beliefs that encourage abuse are still very common.  Too many men continue to feel entitled to control their partners because that is what they experienced growing up and see encouraged in the media and elsewhere.  The worst abusers have been successful in manipulating custody courts to undermine laws designed to prevent domestic violence.

The ACE research is incredibly exciting.  Society now has the ability to significantly reduce cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, suicide, dropping out of school and many other serious diseases and social problems.  This is why Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the original ACE Study believes that prevention is the best use for his research.  Reducing these health and social problems will increase life expectancy, improve the quality of our lives and increase economic output as we reduce the enormous cost of tolerating abuse.  These benefits require society to implement the best practices available to prevent domestic violence and child abuse.  Society cannot realize these benefits as long as we allow a bogus and unscientific theory called PAS (and other terms) to continue to be used to help abusers undermine domestic violence laws and ruin our children’s lives.

[1] Paul J. Fink, “Parental Alienation Syndrome” in Domestic Violence Abuse and Child Custody, Mo Therese Hannah & Barry Goldstein, eds. Ch. 12 (2010)

[2] Richard A. Gardner, Child Custody Litigation: A Guide for Parents and Mental Health Professional P. 93 (1986).

[3] Richard A. Gardner, True and False Accusation of Child Sex Abuse.   P. 572 (1992)

[4] Stephanie J. Dallam, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: Is It Scientific? (1999), available at

[5] Peter G. Jaffe, Claire V. Crooks, & Samantha E. Poisson, “Common Misconceptions in Addressing Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes,” 54 Juv. & Fam. Ct. J. 57 (2003)

[6] PAS is a sexist theory that was designed to help abusive fathers and is virtually only used to support the position of fathers.

[7] Nicholas M.C. Bala et al., Allegations of Child Abuse in the Context of Parental Separation: A Discussion Paper (Department of Justice, Canada, 2001),

[8] id

[9] Daniel G. Saunders, Kathleen C. Faller & Richard M. Tolman, Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody-Visitation Recommendations (Oct. 31, 2011),


[10] Susan Goldberg, Attachment Part Three: Attachment Across the Life Span (Nov. 2004),

[11] Daniel G. Saunders, supra, note 9

[12] Nancy Erickson, “Fighting False Allegations of Parental Alienation in Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody, Mo Therese Hannah & Barry Goldstein, eds. P. 20-36 (2010).  The psychologist sanctioned were Douglas Darnall in Ohio, Larry Leatham in California and William Wrigley in Queensland.

[13] V.J. Felitti et al., “The Relationship of Adult Health Status to Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction. 14 Am. J. Preventive Med. 245 (1998).


[14] Mo Therese Hannah & Barry Goldstein, eds. Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody (2010).